Tested: Could this be Australia’s coolest car?
The best off-roader off the showroom floor is now a better drive on the bitumen. Jeep's new JL Wrangler is a serious piece of enthusiasts' kit, at least in the most extreme Rubicon version.
It not, however, without its flaws. ANCAP rates the Wrangler as a one-star vehicle. That won't faze the 12 per cent of drivers who buy the Wrangler for its reputation for wrangling tough terrain.
It probably also won't affect the 25 per cent of buyers who - according to Jeep's research - buy the Wrangler for its style. This one has a more steeply raked windscreen to improve aerodynamics but still comes with removable soft and hardtop roof panels for the most exposed motoring this side of a convertible.
And not many convertibles can conquer the Rubicon Trail …
Prices have climbed about $10,000 over its predecessor. To justify the increase, Jeep cites improved noise suppression, better refinement, greater off-road prowess than ever and better interior materials with more standard kit.
The new JL range starts at $48,950 for the base two-door Sport S without autonomous emergency braking - at least until the 2020 model year vehicles arrive - and tops out at $68,950 for the four-door Rubicon 2.2-litre diesel. The 3.6-litre petrol Rubicon we tested is $63,950 and that $5K saving is going to buy a lot of fuel.
Standard gear on the Rubicon includes front and rear diff locks, electronically disconnecting sway bar, 8.4-inch infotainment screen with satnav, dedicated off-road screens and smartphone connectivity, steel front bumper and LED lights.
The maker's Mopar options list, a big part of the style-led appeal, includes more than 100 items ranging from interior bling to external winches and cladding. A suspension lift kit is still pending local homologation.
The on-road manners of the Wrangler are a couple of generations ahead of the previous JK series that launched in 2006.
The steering is still vague on centre - and not precise at the best of times - but there's far less "slop" in the adjustment before the wheel starts to transfer your inputs to the tyres.
The JL is also less inclined to follow the road camber as faithfully as its predecessor. The more relaxed on-road manners make this far more fluid than fidgety.
It's still not going to rival a Ford Ranger on the road. Then again, the Ranger won't make the first set of ruts the Wrangler will cope with …
The seats cushions can be adjusted for comfort and there's no shortage of room or storage, front or rear.
There's some thrum from the hardtop roof at highway speeds, wind hiss around the mirrors and windscreen pillars and the inevitable noise from all-terrain rubber on tarmac. Inside, however, the ambience isn't too far off the 4WD ute mark.
The infotainment is easy to operate, the ergonomics aren't bad and the coil suspension means it doesn't wallow in the corners as previous Wranglers were prone to do.
The Wrangler range earns a one-star crash-test rating from ANCAP. Our Rubicon version packs the autonomous emergency braking needed to help comply with ANCAP's "safety assist" component.
As AEB isn't available on the base version for now and no variant has lane departure alert, the Wrangler wasn't admissible for seven of the 13 points used in that component, which resulted in a 32 per cent rating.
For the record, the safety kit on the Rubicon includes AEB, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, along with the requisite camera and sensors.
The bigger safety issue for me is the physical deformation in the frontal crash test. The Wrangler scored 50 per cent for adult occupant protection but ANCAP notes the JL "did not retain its structural integrity" and "connection between the (windscreen) pillar and the cross-fascia beam was compromised, as was the footwell structure".
Again, for the record, the Wrangler earned 80 per cent for child occupant protection and 49 per cent for vulnerable road user protection, the latter low score again because of the absence on any model of AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection.
It is a given that the Wrangler Rubicon has no off-road equals in standard factory trim.
This one is as good as ever - it'll take a better off-roader than me to say where its limits are - but it will hump itself up slopes and scrape along rock ruts without the driver generally having to do much more than disable the front sway bar.
By the time the Wrangler is engaging diff-locks, regular 4WDs are engaging winches and heading home before underbody damage becomes terminal.
On highways the JL is now almost composed, albeit with more interior noise courtesy of the removable body panels. Urban running still highlights the amount of steering input needed in car parks but in all circumstances the petrol engine with its eight-speed auto transmission is hard to fault.
Head for the hills and this is the must-have machine. It's a diamond in the rough and the edges keep getting smoother with each generation.
Safety shouldn't be a secondary consideration when designing any new vehicle and the Wrangler will suffer for its poor ANCAP score.
Toyota 70 Series Workmate, $63,740 plus on-roads
The ageing, V8 diesel Workmate is more workhorse than extreme recreational vehicle - and diff locks are still an option.
Suzuki Jimny, $23,990 plus on-roads
The ladder-framed Jimny shares the Jeep's off-road inclination but relies on light weight to keep it out of trouble. Buy two and keep one for spare parts.
The rating is a compromise, much like the Wrangler. If you're off-roading, this is a five-star 4WD. If you're style-driven, the iconic design is still a four-star proposition. If safety is key, the Wrangler has already covered itself in mud.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Price: From $63,950 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/$1495 for 5 years/60,000km
Engine: 3.6-litre V6, 209kW/347Nm
Safety: 1 star, 4 airbags, AEB, adaptive cruise, blind spot and rear cross traffic alert